I’ve long been trying to describe what I aim for in my writing. I was first alerted to the problem when a publisher pointed it out to me.
I was in my twenties and had been bothering this publisher with submissions since my late teens, and she finally asked me to come see her. She explained two problems with my writing. One was that ennui suffocated the stories. (Happy to report that I outgrew that.) The other problem was harder to overcome: My stories, she said, fell between two chairs. They weren’t sensational or formulaic enough for commercial success, but nor were they penetrating enough for serious literature.
(They must have had some other merit, because otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered talking to me. I think. Hope.)
It’s the kind of problem my father used to describe as “too big for a serviette, too small for a table cloth”.
Even knowing what the publisher’s problem was – and by extension the buyer’s/reader’s problem – I decided to address it not by changing what I do, but by trying to make it work. To use her metaphor: rather than choose between the two chairs, I wanted to sit on both. I wanted to write books with events and plots like genre stories, but with the careful prose and convincing characterisation usually reserved for serious literature. Not because of rebelliousness or some self-destructive urge, at least not consciously, but because that is what I would want to read. I like stories that make me care about the characters, that have tension and events, and where I can also enjoy the narrative angle and the prose itself.
To my mind, my books since Nobody Dies have achieved what I set out to do, to varying degrees. Half of One Thing, for instance, is a straightforward war story built around the cliché of a soldier falling in love with a woman on the enemy side, but it was actually driven by a theme of great importance in my life – divided national loyalties and how this impacts on love. It’s my most autobiographical book, though heavily masked. Based on reviews, I think readers responded to the easy pace and neatly plotted story, without necessarily picking up on the more personal theme. Parts Unknown is both a tense adventure story and a look at how people can respond to aspects of colonialism.
I’ve been lucky to find some publishers willing to gamble on my work, as well as, of course, many who decline. Reader response has been mixed, which is fine. We don’t all like the same things.
In my occasionally successful approaches to publishers and my invariably failed attempts to interest agents, I have tried to convey my aims as a writer. In one such letter, I wrote:
I believe that it must be possible to write books with dramatic action that also have believable characters, rewarding prose and meaningful themes.
That was rather succinct and clear, I thought. But I recently received an email from a friend who isn’t someone who thinks about writing/books/literature more than the average reader, but who managed to describe what I do more compellingly than I have been able to do after years of trying. Here’s what he wrote in response to Parts Unknown:
I actually thought your book was in the territory of the Bryce Courtenay/Wilbur Smith (as a compliment) but with less of the hero worship of the characters – a bit more honest/authentic – the film festival version of writing.
And that’s it – the film festival version. Next time I’m called upon to describe what I do, I’ll say: “I write film festival versions of genre stories.”